The Imam Training Debate: The Future of Religion for Dutch Muslims

Some young people like me don’t go to the imam anymore, because we know that he won’t have the answer.  It sounds funny, but if we have difficult questions we just Google them.  Of course the answers we find are coming from imams in Saudi Arabia or Syria and you really can’t implement them over here in The Netherlands. Faisal Mirza

As young Dutch Muslims find themselves turning to Google Imams for answers to the trials and tribulations of growing up Muslim and Dutch, youth leaders like Faisal Mirza are thinking about how to address what their parents’ Islam could not.  Mirza created Derwish.nl, an online community for curious Dutch Muslims to tackle questions like polygamy, sex and religious identity.  Even Mirza admits however that the really difficult questions cannot be answered alone.  “The problem is that on the harder issues we refer people to an imam, but I only can think of one or two people in the Netherlands that speak Dutch and are working as imams.”  Mirza’s reality is emblematic of the problems second and third generation Muslim immigrants are facing as they reconcile their religious identity with the Dutch culture they grew up in.  For young Muslim leaders like Mirza and the members of his student organization, MashriQ, the answer seems simple enough.  “Islam is more than praying everyday.  It’s a lifestyle.  For all problems, we search for the answer in Islam.  The imam must know more than reading the Koran.  He should know how to deal with problems in school, at work, in relationships.  He really guides us in our lives and knowing the language and culture is a must if you want to reach our generation.”

Cultural Need and Political Fears

As the children of Muslim immigrant guest workers of the 1960s and 70s attempt to mediate their parents’ religious beliefs with life in the very western and secular Netherlands, Islam is again under siege.  Terrorist attacks in Europe and the assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Dutch-Moroccan Islamic fundamentalist shocked the nation and forced the government to take measures against what they feared was an increasingly radical culture among Muslims. Despite the killer’s perfect Dutch and high education, failed integration policies were immediately blamed for the violence. Suddenly the country’s marginalized Muslim youth became supposedly the greatest threat to national security.  The response was swift, with immediate legislation demanding more rigorous integration exams and language requirements for non-Westerners hoping to come to The Netherlands.  Government institutions were searching for a way to monitor Islam within their borders with the hope of curbing extremism and preventing further alienation. Commuter imams brought in from countries like Turkey or Morocco to serve large immigrant communities were singled out as the source of extremist thought.  Their lack of knowledge of Dutch culture and language were perceived as primary obstacles to Muslim integration.  As a response the Dutch government has moved to establish pilot programs in Islamic theology and, more recently, government-funded imam training initiatives.  While youth organizations like MashriQ search for imams and religious leaders to address their realities as second and third generation Muslim immigrants, the Dutch government is telling them: “training for imams in the Netherlands may…significantly contribute to the integration…of young migrants in particular…to defend themselves against radicalization” (Dutch Ministry of Justice, 2005).

Pioneering Programs

Today the Dutch government has made financial and political commitments to three new programs in Islamic theological training, all of which find themselves in very different contexts and none of which have been immune to controversy.  Yet the debate is by no means confined to The Netherlands.  Formalized Islamic theological studies have been negotiated throughout Europe with varying degrees of success, as put forward in a report by PhD Birgitte Schepelern Johansen from the University of Copenhagen. The negotiation, which has involved politicians, universities and the Muslim community at large, seems to reaffirm formal, national education strategies as effective means to combat extremism and control the transmission of Islam in Europe.  

Many wonder whether training imams in The Netherlands will do anything to prevent extremism, and if Islamic higher education will grant Islam and Muslims legitimate positions as integrated and enduring pieces of the national landscape.  Moreover, will imam education programs funded by a secular Western government be greeted with legitimacy and authority in the Muslim circles where these new Dutch imams are to serve?  Two of the programs are based at large Dutch universities and teach Islam from an academic and theological approach while one focuses on developing imams and religious practitioners in a practical sense.  For all programs the challenge will be to create religious training that meets the needs of Dutch youngest Muslims while still maintaining authority among older generations and calming the Dutch government’s political fears.  

Teaching Islamic Theology  

Ironically, The Netherlands’ first attempt at a government-sponsored program was initiated at its largest Protestant university, the Vrije Universiteit (VU). The new bachelor and master combination teaches Islamic theology, Arabic language and religious studies along with a focus on Islam in the Netherlands and pastoral care. In her aforementioned report released in March of this year, Birgitte Johansen notes that the VU’s program walks a precarious line between political demands to shape moderate Dutch Muslims’ knowledge about society and Muslim demands to teach an authentic and true Islam.  While the VU’s prestigious status among Dutch universities may assure it’s authenticity as a training ground, the legitimacy of an Islamic program in a Protestant academic tradition has been challenged by Muslims. The Dean of the theological faculty, Abraham van Beek, explains that at “the public universities’ courses … you have Islamology teachers who are not Muslims themselves.  Well aware of the criticism, Vrije Universiteit “would like to change this by having people who live in the tradition.” The VU insists that since Islam is taught in a dialogical and plural framework, it simply provides an academic space for Muslims to develop their faith.  Johansen worries however whether that framework can be neutral in a Protestant context.  According to Johansen, employing “distinctions such as…’confessional’ versus ‘secular’, instead of…’Christian’ versus ‘Muslim’,” will allow the VU to dodge criticism from Muslim organizations in training Islamic religious leaders.  Muslims themselves, however, will still need convincing when it comes to accepting lessons on their religion from a Christian institution.       

Unfortunately, the reality remains that the VU’s program, which received two million euros of public financing, failed to solicit the input of Dutch leading Muslim organizations.  Leiden University, another program to receive a federal nod, has been awarded 2.35 million euros for a program to begin in September.  Respected Dutch scholar P.S. van Koningsveld, chosen to administer the program, regards it as his task “to integrate the intellectual potential within the Islamic community into the Dutch university system.” Similar to the VU, Leiden’s program focuses on Islam in the European context and concentrates on a literary and historical perspective.  While Leiden’s program did not collaborate with Islamic organizations in planning the curriculum, Ph.D. fellow and student advisor Mohammad Ghaly is confident of the program’s success: “I came here in 2000 from Egypt after studying at Al-Azhar University1. Islamic education has existed at Leiden since the 16th century, so this is nothing new.” Leiden acknowledges the difficulties in training imams and, like the VU, envisions their role mainly as an academic space that will produce scholars and graduates prepared to work as spiritual care workers and advisors.  

These religious workers could find themselves counseling Muslims in hospitals, prisons and even mosques. While the imam is both a spiritual counselor and responsible for teaching and leading his followers in prayer, a trained spiritual worker could conceivably fulfill an auxiliary role in the Dutch context.  More importantly, Leiden is exploring the idea of enlisting Muslim organizations within umbrella groups like Contactgroep Islam (CGI) to develop practical religious training in mosques as a compliment to the academic curriculum.  These ideas are at this time only conceptual, but the willingness of Leiden’s architects to join forces with the broader community are a promising effort at ensuring authority among the broader Muslim community.  On the other hand, Leiden’s position as the oldest university in The Netherlands and its long history of Islamic education have secured its legitimacy in the eyes of the government and the Dutch public.

Getting Practical

Expanding on the Islamic theological offerings at the VU and Leiden, the Ministry of Education awarded funds to the Amsterdam-based Hogeschool InHolland.  The hogeschool, a practical training university and not a research institution, has had a program in Islamic studies since 1995 that trains Islamic educators for work in Dutch secondary schools.  In light of their experience with Islamic training, the Ministry asked them to establish a four-year practical program provided they cooperate extensively with the thousands of Dutch Muslims.  The school’s project director, Rimke van der Veer, explained that they “made contact with some Muslim organizations in the planning stages, but the Ministry of Education said that wasn’t enough and asked us to seek out more cooperation.” The government’s insistence resulted in a two-year effort that boasted five Muslim umbrella organizations representing over 500,000 Dutch Muslims.  MilliGörus, the largest representative of Turkish Muslims in The Netherlands, was one of the first to join the project two years ago and according to it’s PR-officer Mustafa Hamurçu “one of the first organizations to demand Dutch educated imams.  We fully support the program because we feel that you need to have imams educated here that understand life in The Netherlands.” 

The practical nature of the hogeschool has been particularly conducive to seeking out partners in the wider religious community.  Currently, InHolland has divided its program into three areas of specialization: Islamic social worker education (continued) and religious training for both lay spiritual workers and imams (both new).  Like the VU and Leiden, InHolland maintains a balance between a classical study of Islamic texts and a critical analysis of Islam in its modern European context.  Looking ahead, InHolland will expand their long-term goals by meeting officials from the VU and Leiden so that their bachelor graduates may continue with a more academically-oriented master program.  

Progress has been fruitful on both sides and the school will prepare to welcome its first 15 students this September.  Though the partners are optimistic, van de Veer admits that “no one is really sure what to expect.  I found the total of 15 students to be quite low, but we’ll have to wait and see how things play out in the years to come.”  As stated by a report from the Dutch Ministry of Education, when the program for educators began in 1995 students were expected to find jobs, but most of them did not end up in secondary education.  Some were given auxiliary functions in schools or mosques, but many had trouble.  Nevertheless, today’s atmosphere offers more hope with an increased interest in Islam and Islamic education.  Where a few years ago only one Islamic secondary school existed, today there are three. Rimke van der Veer: “What’s important is that we have a strong connection to the community.  We expect our teachers to have a strong connection to the umbrella organizations and we hope to draw on our own graduates as future instructors.”  Cooperation and enthusiasm from powerful groups like MilliGörus hopefully demonstrates a mutually beneficial relationship that Muslims will recognize as both authoritative and legitimate to the Dutch Muslim community as a whole. 

Broadening the Debate 

Though recent political developments have spurred aggressive educational policies with regard to imam training and Islamic education in the Netherlands, the controversy over imams in Europe has been raging for decades.  Jørgen Nielsen, Director of the Danish Institute in Damascus, feels little has changed since the 1980’s when imams first began to serve European communities.  “They usually had little education, could recite the Qur’an in phonetic Arabic but did not understand the Arabic, knew little of Islamic law other than basic elements which he had no training to interpret…and would preach from collections of prepared texts.”  Though now in The Netherlands they enjoy at least a university-level education, imported imams have no experience of European urban life, often do not speak Dutch and are appointed for limited periods of time. Jørgen Nielsen points out that in Britain, as young people became dissatisfied with imams whose experiences had nothing to do with their own, children stopped going to Qur’an school and the imam’s position as a religious authority was threatened.  The Elsevier weekly reports in 2005, despite opposition from the government and some of the Muslim community, nearly all of the imams in The Netherlands continue to come from the Middle East, with 196 foreign imams arriving in the last four years.  Adding to the present tension over Islamic extremism, recent media like Elsevier,  depict imams preaching messages of hate and intolerance towards the core values of Dutch society, including insulting homosexuals and denying equal rights for women. The numbers of these ‘hate-imams’ are probably low and logic is reversed as of course these imams are from abroad, because they all are.  But as a result of picture depicted by the media, a parliamentary majority has pushed forward legislation to ban the influx of foreign-trained imams by the year 2008.  The question however remains whether the new imam training programs in The Netherlands can produce new Dutch imams that are accepted in Muslim communities.

There are, however, clear benefits to the imam commuter program in The Netherlands.  Ayhan Tonca, the president of Contactorgaan Moslims en Overheid (CMO), the largest Muslim umbrella organization in The Netherlands, cautions that “imams coming from abroad are good imams.  It would be ludicrous to assume that we in the Netherlands could provide the same level of education these imams receive in the Middle East.”  Tonca’s concern over the competence of Dutch-trained imams is shared by educational institutions as they establish their Islamic programs throughout The Netherlands. “You cannot realistically become an imam in four years.  That would take nearly ten years of intensive training.”  And Tonca is by no means alone in his opinion.  Firdaous Oueslati, a Ph.D. fellow studying Islamic higher education at Leiden’s Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World is understandably skeptical:

Is it possible to train an imam in five years?  Spiritual guidance, perhaps.  But imams, well that’s something entirely different.  It’s a question of where they will end up.  More importantly, what do the individual mosques want?  Do they want an imam who recites the Koran well, or an imam who knows more about Dutch society?  My expectation is that they will end up in other religious occupations.

Furthermore, Tonca insists that “there is no guarantee that when you educate imams in The Netherlands they will not be fundamentalists. Turkish Muslims in The Netherlands get a moderate brand of Islam, because they are selected by the Turkish (secular) government.” At the same time the commuter imam strategy prevents imams from integrating into Dutch society.

Though Tonca and the CMO express concern over the end result of the government’s new initiatives, they are fully committed to productive cooperation.  In fact, Muslims in The Netherlands have been busy putting together programs of their own for over six years with varied success.  MilliGörus, CMO’s largest member, began its own imam education over three years ago. Mustafa Hamurçu of MilliGörus states: “We’re in dialog, but this isn’t something from the government.  We put 13 Turkish imams through a year of training, because we needed imams that understood the situation here in The Netherlands.  This sparked the government’s interest.”  While they are delighted with the government’s active concern, MilliGörus admits that “it is very late to start with this.  We should have been working together years ago.”  

Community Islamic Initiatives

Of course Islamic higher education did not begin with the current debate.  Already in 1998 Muslims in Rotterdam had established a private institution to offer Islamic theological education to the growing Muslim population in The Netherlands.  That initiative continues today and has grown into a full-fledged university offering bachelor and master courses to 240 students.  A unique experiment, The Islamic University of Rotterdam (IUR) was the first of its kind to offer a full Islamic curriculum in Europe.  The university’s director, Akca Huseyn, says, “here in Rotterdam Sunnis and Shias are working side-by-side.  This has not happened for 1400 years.” Now the university is branching out beyond Muslims to raise awareness about Islam and combat Islamophobia by offering courses for non-Muslims and addressing issues like homosexuality, abortion and democracy in Islam.

IUR considers itself part of The Netherlands and by maintaining it’s independence from Islamic governments and organizations abroad, it hopes to find a place as a reliable center of Islamic scholarship.  Though they are not concerned with imam education as such, they are joined by another Rotterdam institution, the Islamic University of Europe, in seeking official certification for their academic programs.  Both institutions are strongly committed to Islamic education in the Dutch context. 

While the academic certification process is underway for these institutions, government-funded universities have already certified ‘imam’ programs. This is perceived by the muslim community to be a distinct preference from the government, frustrating iniatives from muslims themselves. A great obstacle for putting forward their viewpoint has been disorganization within the Muslim community itself.  Firdaous Oueslati provides an explanation:

The migration started a bit later than in other countries and people didn’t have the chance to organize.  While most of the first immigrants were not well educated, now we’re dealing with the second generation that have seen the benefits of the Dutch system along with Muslims that arrived in the 1990’s as political refugees with considerable education.

While Muslim communities have made considerable progress, they still have their differences.  Akca Huseyn of the IUR admits, “politician Pim Fortuyn called Muslims backward.  He may be right about us on the matter of organizing our community.  We can’t seem to come together and make connections.  I don’t know who the CMO [Contactorgaan Moslims & Overheid, ed.] is, I don’t know who these people are.”   It is perhaps a sad reality that the largest Islamic university in The Netherlands is in no way connected to the only Muslim organization recognized as an official bargaining partner with the government. While the Islamic University Rotterdam is struggling for a sustainable position, CMO has already it’s own plans of starting their own education centre. Despite this telling remark, progress is being made.  Just last week members of the CMO agreed to include the second largest umbrella group, Contactgroep Islam (CGI), as an equal partner.  “Though we have our differences, right now it is more important that we work together,” said Mustafa Hamurçu of MilliGörus. 

Conclusion and Policy Recommendations

The debate over imam education and the future role of Muslims in Dutch society has only begun.  From an individual perspective, the controversy seems to be largely divided along generational lines, with older first generation immigrants favoring commuter imams with stronger ties to the mother country and their traditional Islamic practices.  Younger Muslims, however, are more inclined to trade traditional leaders for religious guidance that is rooted in the social and cultural context that surrounds them in the Netherlands.  As it stands, older Muslims find themselves in leadership positions as they negotiate the future.  However, as Dutch Islam witnesses a changing of the guard and second generation believers assume roles in professional life, they must broker a compromise.   Youth leadership has the power to encourage a more progressive Islamic tradition that reflects their experience as Muslims in modern democratic Europe.  Conversely, the young Muslims must be conscious of cooperation and to strengthen unity with the older generation if they are to be effective in defending their general interests and securing prominent positions in society.  

It is clear that adequate training programs and properly educated Dutch imams are still years away, let alone the acceptance of these imams by the Muslim community and broader society  If Parliament pushes legislation to prohibit or restrict commuter programs by demanding more language training or cultural understanding, Dutch Islam will find itself in limbo.  Dutch Islam may be asked to negotiates a gap between government political control, young Muslim cultural demands and the reality of a Dutch Muslim community that is still lacking in education in The Netherlands of needed spiritual and religious leaders. 

While recent government involvement is promising, it is undoubtedly too little too late. Ironically  because of their own made deadline by banning the influx of foreign-trained imams by the year 2008.  If the Dutch government insists on prohibiting imams from abroad, they must offer realistic alternatives for the country’s Muslims.  Facilitating dialogue between Muslims, politicians and society as a whole is a good start, but more can be done.  Adamant support for all forms of Islamic education and training should be constantly evaluated and supported when possible, especially including the private secular initiatives that have emerged from Muslim communities alone rework sentence.  Only by active cooperation from all parties can The Netherlands accomplish a legitimate result that addresses political fears over extremism and Muslim demands for acceptance.  Government and Muslims alike should move in concert to accept Dutch imam training and religious education as a positive tool in transmitting, preserving and securing Islam in its European circumstances.

References

Interviews

Abba, Aziz.  Director, Islamic Studies Institute, Islamitische Universiteit Rotterdam. 22 Jun 2006

Huseyin, Akca.  Director of Admissions and Member of Board of Regents, The Islamic University of Rotterdam.  28 Jun 2006.

Ghaly, Mohammad.  Ph.D. Fellow and Student Advisor, Faculty of Islamic Theology, University of Leiden. 27 Jun 2006

Hamurçu, Mustafa.  Public Relations Officer, Milli Görus Noord-Nederland. 28 Jun 2006

Mirza, Faisal.  Director, Wij blijven hier.  Student Representative, MashriQ Student Organzation. 28 Jun 2006

Oueslati, Firdaous.  Ph.D. Fellow, International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World. 24 Jun 2006

Sahintiürk, Süleyman.  Vice-Rector, Islamitische Universiteit van Europa. 21 Jun 2006

Tonca, Ayhan.  President, Contactorgaan Moslims en Overheid. 28 Jun 2006

van de Beek, Abraham.  Dean, Theological Faculty, Vrije Universiteit. Qtd. in. 20 Jun 2006

Johansen, Birgitte. PhD student, Research Priority Area Religion in the 21st Century, University of Copenhagen. 23 Jun 2006

van de Veer, Rimke.  Project Director, School of Education Amsterdam, Hogeschool InHolland. 

27 Jun 2006

Literature

Dutch Ministry of Justice. “Strengthening of integration through assimilation, education, labor force participation and tackling discrimination,” letter, 20th September 2005.

Dutch Ministry of Education. “Imams in Nederland: wie leidt ze op?”  Report from the Advice Committee on Imam Education. Dec 2003.  <http://www.minocw.nl/documenten/ho-doc-2003-imamopleiding.pdf>

Johansen, Birgitte Schepelern.  Islam at the European Universities. Research Priority Area Religion in the 21st Century, University of Copenhagen, Apr 2006.

Leiden Universiteit.  Leiden’s Latest.  “New Program: Islamic Theology.”  28 Jun 2006. <http://www.leidenslatest.leidenuniv.nl/index.php3?c=44>

Nielsen, Jørgen S.  “Who is interested in European imams and why?”  Nov 2005. www.ku.dk/satsning/Religion/indhold/publikationer/anden_litteratur/joergen_S_Nielsen.pdf.

van Koningsveld, P.S. in the Brochure:  “Master of Arts: Islamic Theology.”  Universiteit Leiden, Faculty of Theology, 2006.

van Rijckevorsel, René.  “Enkele reis naar huis.”  Elsevier.  23 Feb 2005.

Whewell, Tim.  “State training for Europe’s imams.”  BBC Online.  17 Jun 2004.  <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/crossing_continents/3815053.stm>

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